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City of Grands Rapids announced as finalist for $1 million art competition grant

The City of Grand Rapids, the SiTE:LAB arts organization and Kent County Habitat for Humanity have been announced as one of the final 12 in a Public Art Challenge offered by Bloomberg Philanthropies of New York.
Tom Clinton, Bob Rogers, Paul Amenta and Michael Peoples at ArtPrize Awards Night 2014

Tom Clinton, Bob Rogers, Paul Amenta and Michael Peoples at ArtPrize Awards Night 2014 /Courtesy of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD).

Underwriting support from:
Four parcels of property on Rumsey Street.

Four parcels of property on Rumsey Street. /Filippo Tagliati

Bloomberg Philanthropies announced on March 5 that the City of Grand Rapids is one of 12 finalists in the Public Art Challenge for up to a possible $1 million. The project will be executed by the well known local arts organization SiTE:LAB. Bloomberg offered the astounding amount in a competition set in motion in October of 2014 that the two heads of SiTE:LAB, Paul Amenta and Tom Clinton, applied for in mid-December. The excitement sent Amenta and Clinton, creators of the six-year-old nonprofit arts organization, into celebration mode. 

Amenta, Assistant Professor of Sculpture at Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD), was teaching a 3-D class when he received an email from a friend who had just seen the announcement.  He didn’t have to contain his excitement in front of the class. Clinton, Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (CMC), was in a large meeting of non-profit organizations when his phone started vibrating constantly. He, unlike Amenta, had to contain his excitement for the moment after checking the agitated device.

By end of workday they were in a celebratory meeting with Mary Buikema and Ivor Thomas, Habitat for Humanity directors who had been instrumental in facilitating a partnership between the two nonprofits. At the beginning of their partnership, the Bloomberg proposal was not even a factor in the collaboration.

In an informal meeting in mid-2014, Buikema and Clinton realized there could be potential for SiTE:LAB to utilize property that Habitat owned that was unusable currently.

In the last six years, raw buildings like the Morton House, the former JA Building, the Harris building, the old Public Museum and a former Network 180 mid-century structure were all sites of major art installations by SiTE:LAB and crew. Those five buildings are now in use or are in various stages of redevelopment.

After a few formal meetings between SiTE:LAB and Habitat, a plan was devised for SiTE:LAB to use the abandoned block on Rumsey Street just off Grandville- a block surrounded by a neighborhood desperately needing redevelopment.

Both organizations acknowledge that the celebration “may have been premature." The announcement by Bloomberg was only the first tier of competition.

“But [it] validated the legitimacy of the project,” says Amenta. The two leaders of SiTE:LAB, which has garnered three ArtPrize best venue awards and seven artist awards hosted within those venues, spent hours that same evening detailing an outline of the next proposal and the extensive information gathering that now begins. With the Rumsey projects already in skeleton form, the ensuing steps- which include a site visit by Bloomberg officials- are even now pulsating into a structure for art and neighborhood evolution. 

"Site officials from Bloomberg," Clinton says, “will evaluate our site and proposal for the planned art projects as well as audience engagement that is crucial for a successful outcome.” Another aspect of success is the expectation of concurrent fundraising which will be done jointly by SiTE:LAB and Habitat for Humanity. This aspect is but one of the criteria of the grant to demonstrate community support and sponsorship. 

The artfulness of the plan includes a two-year project with four buildings, two of which will be razed, two of which will be rehabbed by Habitat after the two-year loan to SiTE:LAB. The challenge for SiTE:LAB is that in the past they have only used one structure for temporary art installations. Amenta and Clinton have plans to utilize all four Rumsey Street structures for ArtPrize 2015 and 2016 as well as independent exhibits.

Recognizing that applying for the monies from Bloomberg would more than double their own past fundraising results, as well as give them a solid partnership with the City and Habitat for two years that met criteria for the grant, Clinton and Amenta began the process of application.

ArtPrize officials Kevin Buist, Todd Herring and Ben Poosawtsee initiated the potential collaboration of the project the second week of December.  The City was on board immediately, lending Kimberly Dixon, Administrative Analyst/Grant Writer and Connie M. Bohatch, Managing Director of Community Services to assist Clinton and Amenta with filing and preparing the proposition in record time with a deadline three days away.    

It is important to note that the Rumsey Street projects already in the planning stages will be implemented with or without the Bloomberg monies.  Clinton acknowledges that if the city is announced as one of the winners in May, it will “be a big leap for SiTE:LAB,”since there is only so much ability a small nonprofit has to procure money. Those monies in the past have been used for modest artist stipends that benefit the artists as well as the organization.

An infusion of new money would allow the organization to strategize on a larger scale. Fundraising efforts by SiTE:LAB are largely to reinforce the artists’ work and assist in any way possible. Having extra monetary support for SiTE:LAB artists in terms of increasing the stipend means they could finance needs such as housing, possible travel expenses and installation crews when necessary. These allocations would lessen the expenses international artists as well as U.S. artists must commit to in order to participate in ArtPrize every year. Currently, fundraising for top flight artists around the world leaves SiTE:LAB in fierce competition. Having extra capital would enable these two powerhouse artists to continue transforming the art landscape in our city. 

Another prong of any Bloomberg grant monies awarded will be an International Design Competition during the fall of 2015. SiTE:LAB will be calling for architectural plans displaying a temporary cultural meeting and performance space in this largely Hispanic neighborhood. Community input has indicated a desire for a focal point to draw neighbors together. A monetary prize would be offered for the winning design with the chosen project being built in 2016 for community use as well as ArtPrize 2016 for SiTE:LAB. This project will be driven as a trial run for Habitat to ultimately complete the final project after SiTE:LAB does the work for testing size, location and functionality. 

Because SiTE:LAB has procured a permit from ArtPrize to include Rumsey Street in the official boundaries, money from the grant would also be used to shuttle visitors from downtown to Rumsey Street and back- which would be a crucial component for involvement from the larger community. 

One of the many issues SiTE:LAB deals with each year during ArtPrize is how to make inaccessible buildings at least partially accessible to mobility and otherwise physically impaired individuals. It may be one of the biggest challenges in the raw and rundown properties they are renowned for transforming via art. The Rumsey Street buildings present this problem in quadruple form. As usual, Amenta, Clinton, and their SiTE:LAB volunteer crew of carpenters, artists and community individuals will work to create another metamorphosis that looks to include a culturally vibrant neighborhood in need of such a transformation. Transforming structures from the early to mid part of the 20th century into accessible edifices will only be part of that.

Disclosure: The author Toni Bal has been a volunteer at Site:Lab for the past several years. Her friendships with Tom Clinton and Paul Amenta have an eight year history.

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